Blogs, Flogs, Hitblogs, Identity Theft and Politicians: A New Tool for the Dirty Tricks Bag?

Anyone can start up a blog claiming to be anyone else: sometimes the “identity theft” is satirical and most readers will catch on. “Harriet Miers” blog lampooned (in the first person) the aborted Supreme Court nominee; some Virginia wags started a political blog titled “Not Larry Sabato” in reference to the massively-quoted University of Virginia political science professor. The “Roger Ailes” of the blog of the same name is not the president and CEO of Fox News and the blogger tells us so, in this manner: “Not affiliated with Fox News Channel or any other houses of ill-repute.”

Less identity theft than personal assault are blogs dedicated to attacking the person in the title or address. The bloggers at SantorumExposed.com focus their ire on Pennsylvania republican Senator Rick Santorum. Rockford Illinois-based “Ellis Wyatt” (itself a pseudonym) talks about many subjects at Dump Dick Durbin but the democratic senator is a special target of negative criticism.

So what happens when you, or your staff, or people affiliated with your campaign start blogging and don’t reveal their affiliations? And they do so to laud you or slam your opponents? Is that unethical? A scandal? In the past, such chicanery with say, call-ins to talk shows have forced resignations from political campaigns.

The State Journal Register of Springfield, MO, reports BLOG POSTS TRACED TO CAMPAIGN COMPUTERS (December 13, 2005):

The publisher of the political newsletter Capitol Fax reported Monday that people using computers assigned to Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s campaign have been posting anonymous messages bashing and praising other candidates in the governor’s race on the Capitol Fax Weblog…

In the future, we can expect a growth industry in fake blogs (either to praise your candidate, what Michael Cornfield calls a “flog” or to attack an opponent, what I call a “hitblog”).

Political workers will also infiltrate existing blogs and write comments in line with campaign talking points. More on this later!

Challenge: Blogging is a sort of ebay of ideas: the system depends on most people being honest about who they are and the authenticity of the goods (ideas) they have to sell.

 

Originally posted January 4, 2006 at PolicyByBlog

Comments

  1. Original Reader Comments (15)

    Horst Prillinger is a university lecturer at the University of Vienna where he studied communications, media studies and journalism. In the blog he uses to communicate with his students he says:

    “the phenomenon of weblogs has contributed to the dilution of journalistic values such as careful research, the use of multiple sources and the whole editorial process that ensures that the published information is correct and valid. Indeed many weblogs are proud of doing away with this process. In effect, it does not matter. As a truly democratic medium, weblogs are not about what is true or not, but about what concerns one particular person. Their whole point is one individual’s distorted point of view.
    Our society is hungry for these highly individualistic views of the world, be it for the gratification of social needs, their entertainment value or the novelty factor. Weblogs are, in a way, tiny ‘reality soaps’ that make it possible to ‘connect’ to people that are likewise minded, just as for others they allow voyeuristic glances into other people’s private lives.
    But they are much more than that — they effectively turn all notions of what mass media are on their head. Content, newsworthiness, even truth do not matter any longer. Different rules apply. To take weblogs seriously (which we should), we must not take them too seriously. Weblogs are not journalism; quite on the contrary, they might just be beginning to revolutionise our concept of journalism. We’d better take note.”

    If blogging is like ebay, then BUYER BEWARE! People ought to know that anonymity is one of the major blessings/horrors of the blog world. The system only depends on “the authenticity of the goods” and “people being honest” if people talk web logs as statements of truth and forms of journalistic mass communication created with integrity. Whose to say that that’s how people take them?
    January 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterow1018

    The whole idea of dishonest political blogging brings to mind other examples of unethical political behavior…Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton each paid journalists to savage the other in print…George Will praised Ronald Reagan’s performance in a 1980 debate without telling that he helped Reagan prepare for it.

    More recently it was discovered that Michael McManus, a syndicated columnist, received $10,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services and that Maggie Gallagher, another syndicated columnist, received $21,500 from the same department (as described in the Feb. 5, 2005 issue of the Economist). One of the more widely reported incidents was Armstrong Williams’ $240,000 contract with the Department of Education to push the No Child Left Behind Act in his columns and news appearances.

    Just like the negative publicity these unethical acts yielded, so will unethical political blogging. Hopefully with the negative press, candidates will recognize the dangers of having campaign workers blog without revealing affiliations and will create policies against it.
    January 29, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersmarin3

    That is the absolute beauty of blogs. But since I am a mature adult, I think these people are just being stupid. They need lives. Now to be serious (so I can get my points).
    This is a part of the internet, it allows that level of anonymity and unless we can get the spyware that I think the government has :), we are not going to catch these people.
    Also why are these being labled fake blogs? They are weblogs like all the other ones I refuse to read, but the writer is using a fake identity. If these politicians are so mad, they should straighten up, but that’s not really what makes a good politician, huh?
    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterharrison72

    Ow1018 quotes Horst Prillinger’s Blog which says: “As a truly democratic medium, weblogs are not about what is true or not, but about what concerns one particular person….Weblogs are, in a way, tiny ‘reality soaps’ that make it possible to ‘connect’ to people that are likewise minded, just as for others they allow voyeuristic glances into other people’s private lives.”

    I think this characterization of Blogs as “reality soaps” is not restricted to just Blogs, but is indicative of most media today. In an interview with Chris Matthews of “Hard Ball,” Bob Schieffer was asked: “Do the facts document the facts ever catch up to what these guys say in these major prime-time TV performances?” (referring to presidential debates). Schieffer answers: “Probably they don’t.” (Bennett 2005).

    Bennett argues in Beyond Pseudoevents (2005), questioning whether news is driven by a desire for reality TV over truth, that media increasingly give politicians free passes on the substance of what they say instead of catching them on the lies they tell. Instead candidates’ statements are treated as political drama. The media’s preference for “reality” TV is evident in all mediums. This is not a problem reserved for Blogs.
    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjohn444

    There is a certain ethical standard that should be upheld when opinions are expressed in public. Blogging will have all the credibility of radio call-in shows if those ethics are not practiced with some regularity.

    Radio call-in shows can be informational and productive if a professional host monitors the conversation. But when anonymous callers control the conversation, the reliability of the information can break down quickly.

    The incident involving Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s campaign brings to mind the issue of newspaper letters to the editor. Most newspapers require identification for a letter to the editor to be published, and most make a confirmation phone call to verify the identity of the writer.

    But it is still up to the writer to identify any affiliation that would indicate a particular bias for the writer. For instance, if an employee of a power company writes a letter to the editor in support of a rate increase, it would be unethical for the writer not to acknowledge his affiliation with the power company. The same can be said of the bloggers from Gov. Blagojevich’s campaign who used their anonymity in an attempt to create a false perception of public opinion.
    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHog79

    As far as I know, Internet merchandise has its own system to set up business credibility. The customers are asked to send feedbacks to the website and thus the sellers will get different guarantees according to the feedbacks. Those with higher credibility have a priority to be recommended to customers and, thus, they have more chance to win in competition. On the other side, those dishonest sellers will rapidly lose their credibility.

    However, it is hard, if not impossible, to set up such a system in blogosphere. It is difficult to check the reliability of political posts and comments; it is unfeasible to grade the credibility of bloggers and comment-makers. Besides, the power of Internet opinions always origins from opinions themselves but not from the credibility of deliverers. Therefore, the growth of fake blogs seems to be unavoidable, as the poster has illustrated.
    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commentereusuee

    You asked in your post, “So what happens when you, or your staff, or people affiliated with your campaign start blogging and don’t reveal their affiliations? And they do so to laud you or slam your opponents? Is that unethical? A scandal?”

    This may cause scandal if the blog slams an opponent with evidence that is detrimental enough to create substantial negative hype. Is it unethical? I think it is unethical to slam an opponent and not identify your affiliation especially if one is a member of an organized and funded oppositional campaign. The question is whether it is illegal? Personal assualts on politicians could create a defamation case. Defamation, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (http://www.eff.org/bloggers/lg/faq-defamation.php), is “a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation, and published ‘with fault,’ meaning as a result of negligence or malice.” For defamation to be proven and the slam to be illegal, the victim fights an uphill battle. He or she is a politician, thus a public figure, and the EFF states, “A public figure must show ‘actual malice’ — that you published with either knowledge of falsity or in reckless disregard for the truth. This is a difficult standard for a plaintiff to meet.” It appears that this could be a problem for many future politicians anticipating a run for office. I definitely agree with you when you said, “In the future, we can expect a growth industry in fake blogs,” especially to attack other public figures.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNOLA7

    Take a trip to Ebay’s Security Center, where you will find some pieces of good advice such as, “shoppers should be wary of unreasonably low bargain prices or unusually attractive promises”. The same advice could be transferred to those people looking to blogs for their political education. Even if bloggers are being honest about their identity, they can still be dishonest or manipulative in their content. Of the three examples you give of blogging ethical issues, the final example of secretive political campaigning most seriously affects voters. Perhaps, in a situation like this, it is more appropriate to look to advertising ethics for a model. The American Advertising Federation (AAF) demands that, “Advertising shall refrain from making false, misleading, or unsubstantiated statements or claims about a competitor or his/her products or services”. Since politicians are most certainly selling a product (their image), they ought to at least be held to the same standards as advertisers. Either way, Ebay has it right: “If an offer sounds highly suspicious or too good to be true, it probably is”.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdiversgirl

    The simile of the blogosphere as the EBay of ideas is pretty good. Just like Ebay has some really good deals on it, it’s got a whole lot of crap that no one really wants to deal with too. Such is the blogosphere. It’s full of thoughts, opinions, some even backed by fact, and if its users are serious about finding good knowledge or good ideas, they might have to spend some time doing their research.
    Just as a seasoned EBay shopper would never buy a Chanel handbag without first researching the original project, blog readers can season themselves to find good authors and come across seemingly illuminating, informative, juicy-scoop ideas or thoughts and then do some research of their own before buying into those ideas.
    As far as political insiders using the blogoshpere to share their unique perspectives – if it’s the truth they are printing, then let it be known. Granted, despite calls for ethical awareness and the use of sound rhetoric, there will always be slimers who will use a good tool to do bad things. Again, this merely reinforces the need for blog readers to verify the info they recieve, to make sure they are buying into a good sale and not a sack of lies.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlittle34

    Flogs and hitblogs are a result of this new medium, especially one without any true established rules and guidelines. Since this new platform of mass communication can be accessed and used by anyone, the inability to stop political staffers from bashing or praising the candidates will only increase with the awareness and popularity of blogs. Again, this goes back for the need of some of the blogs to step up and become leaders in this new media. Certain blogs need to be identified to keep these other insurgents in check and present not only the truth, but also those, which assist in determining the true headlines and the real and important issues regarding political policy.

    Flogs and hitblogs: are they a “new tool for the dirty tricks bag? So what! That is one of the interesting aspects of using blogs. Just like ebay, the customer takes a chance when bidding and purchasing items over this platform. The consumer has to be smart and conduct their homework and research prior to participating in ebay activities. Blogs are the same way, the audience or public must be smart and educated on how they use or interpret this new type of debate. Unlike blogs, ebay does have a self-policing instrument for those who present false information regarding goods traded on its site. Do blogs need to develop similar protection? The problem is blogs will be a little more difficult to find a solution for than it was for ebay. But this subject is probably something to think about for the future of this medium.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBigAL1993

    I agree with PBB/Editor: We should expect fake blogs to populate the blogosphere at increasing levels in the coming years. Sure campaign staffs will use blogs to praise their own candidates and bash others. Why wouldn’t they?

    Making sure your candidate sells and the other guy doesn’t is what campaign staffs do. And they use all forms of media to do it. They plant or leak fake stories to the press. They feed off the natural biases of “traditional” reporters to make big, bad stories about the other guys out of rumors and missing documents. They direct money to organizations who pose as interested citizens’ groups and create trashy television commercials. And now, they’ll use the Internet to do the same thing.

    It’s true that knowing the source of a blog or blog posting is difficult. But so is knowing the source of much of the news we get during campaign season. The Internet is just another arena in which opinion can be informed, persuaded or manipulated from a dark, smoke-filled, secret room.

    So what’s the big deal? It’s a big deal, I gather, because there is a hope that blogs will save our public discussion by giving it new democratic forms. I find this perspective fascinating…and a bit idealistic.

    It is true, as PBB/Editor wrote, that the “ebay of ideas” that is the blogosphere depends upon “most people being honest about who they are and the authenticity of goods (ideas) they have to sell.” But so do our other systems of media. We depend upon reporters to give us at least the facts, and hopefully (every once and a while) the truth. But they screw up. They fake stories. They make up quotes. They are inaccurate. They let their biases slip into coverage.

    I’m not saying all reporters are bad or that all news is bad, by a long shot. What I would like to point out is that the blogosphere will be open to all the pressures other forms of media are, and this shouldn’t surprise us. If we look to blogs to somehow save us from the pitfalls traditional media face, I think we’re in for a great disappointment.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterrepublic3

    The comparison to eBay is not accurate. eBay does not rely on the user “being honest about who they are and the authenticity of goods (ideas) they have to sell.” It relies on the other users to police that user. It is expected that the buyer/seller will be honest and that his or her payments/merchandise are legitimate, but the burden falls on the other buyers/sellers to ensure the legitimacy through feedback ratings. The part of eBay that works so well is that you are only allowed to leave feedback for someone with whom you have actual interaction. And in turn, they are able to leave feedback for you. If you leave negative feedback without reason, not only will you be given negative feedback, but you will also be reported to eBay. It would be impossible to use this same method in the blogoshere. Bloggers do not have transactions with a beginning and an end. There is no way to accurately rate an interaction with a blogger; therefore it would be impossible to use the eBay method of community reporting.

    Just like blogging, interaction on eBay is anonymous. A potential buyer/seller has no idea who “sellerlady242” is, where she is from, or who she is affiliated with. If a seller would like to share that information, he or she can, but it is definitely not the norm. Furthermore, even if the address and real name of a person is revealed in the course of a transaction, the other person in the transaction has no idea the affiliation of that person. The individual could be Bill Gates’ relative selling Apple computer systems behind his back, but no one would ever know. Also, even on eBay, a buyer or seller can request that the transaction remain private.

    Finally, content should be the criteria by which a reader values the comment, not the writer’s affiliation. The glory of the blogosphere is that the everyman gets to have as much voice as those with credentials and connections. If we begin to demand identities from bloggers, then those comments from heavy hitters will be weighted more than those from others. The whole concept of the open forum would be lost.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterweezy138

    This discussion has me torn between the two opposing views. I do believe that there should be some type of ethical standard for blogs as Hog79 states. If they are going to be considered part of the media world, then they should follow the same guidelines as other journalists do.
    On the other hand, some people that contribute to blogs have no journalist interest but are merely partaking in something that appeals to them. They might have strong views on a subject and want to share them with others. With this in mind, any person reading blogs should be aware that this is only a venue to share thoughts and ideas. There are no prerequisites or qualifications for people to participate in blogging. It is simply a new style of discussion.
    Both sides of this debate bring up good points. It will only be with future studies on this that people will come to a better understanding.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterQTPi1021

    I do agree with ow1018’s comment about buyer beware about the comparison between Ebay of ideas, because of the freedom of the web where one can post anything and everything; it would make sense to approach blogs with a healthy skepticism. It would seem that objectivity is relative in the creation of ideas; there is always an inherent bias when something is created because the creator’s personal beliefs are an integral part of the creation process. Since the opportunity to present any opinion exists, the reader has to search for worthwhile dialogue and take into account that opinions are always behind a creation, but the beauty is that you can find such an array of opinions and ideas that can give a holistic approach to an idea.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commentervanguard15

    Why should we expect honesty of anyone in the political arena? Idealistically, we should, but realistically, it would be a complete waste of trust.History certainly doesn’t suggest it. The current state of political discourse outside the Internet doesn’t suggest it. And now we’ve created a medium that provides a cloak of anonymity, with gmail and yahoo accounts and IM screen names. I think that’s part of the development of media literacy in the 21st century. We have to pay attention to who we are paying attention to, if we want to wind up with the correct information. To some degree, the wide-open nature of blogs does at least provide the opportunity to “out” people who aren’t who they claim to be. But as Barnum (allegedly) said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Maybe we get what we deserve when we believe anything we see on a computer screen.
    February 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa7005

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